Designer Interview and Studio Visit: The Portland Collection

The Portland Collection designers: John Blasioli, Nathaniel Crissman, and Rachel Turk

When Pendleton went looking for designers to create their heritage-based boutique line The Portland Collection, I don't think they could have dreamed up a better team than John Blasioli (designing eponymously), and Rachel Turk and Nathaniel Crissman (of Church & State). All three had been working in Portland for several years, emerging in the top tier of the vibrant independent designer scene and were known for their impeccable quality and technical skills as well as a shared classic-with-a-twist aesthetic. They all love Portland (Rachel and Nathaniel have lived in SE Portland all their lives, until just recently when they took the BIG leap over to NE Portland). And they have all used Pendleton fabrics in their collections in the past.

When I visited the designers at their studios in SE Portland recently, their Fall 2012 collection was just hitting stores but they were just putting the finishing touches on their Fall 2013 collection. We talked about what it's like to design a collection that won't hit stores for a year and a half and how they have a couple of advantages over a lot of designers there: that endless cycle of trends doesn't effect them as much since they're designing classics. Plus, they have the vast Pendleton archive to serve as an inspirational starting point rather than having to pull something out of thin air.

Nearly two years into the project you can tell it's been an intensive crash course for all three designers. They are full of new knowledge and skills, having learned about textile design, large-scale woven and knit manufacturing, working within the structure of a large company, as well as the history of the brand and its mission for the future. 

Read on for a fascinating inside-look at how the collection is created, some lesser known history of Pendleton Woolen Mills (Disney? Yep!), as well as exciting news about what's in store for the future.

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*Interview response key: 
John Blasioli (JBD), Nathaniel Crissman (NAC), Rachel Turk (RJT)

The designers share two large, light-filled studios with beautiful views of the Portland skyline.

What were your first memories of Pendleton?


RJT: My very first memory of Pendleton is my grandfather convincing the workers at the shirt factory they used to have in Milwaukie to give us a tour when I was 5.


How did the brand approach you and what was their mission?


JDB: Pendleton reached out to us all individually which then lead to a pretty lengthy interview process. I think that through Pendleton’s collaborations with more contemporary brands, like Opening Ceremony, a new, younger generation was having a chance to connect with the 100 plus year old company. I think Pendleton felt inspired to create something under their own name that would continue to speak to a younger audience.

I think one of the most unique elements to The Portland Collection, and to which I give Pendleton a lot of credit for, is that they reached out to local, independent designers.

The Cimarron print from the Fall 2012 collection was inspired by a maxi-skirt found in the Pendelton archives. Rachel explained to me the involved process of recreating the LOOK of some of the old fabrics when the original manufacturing process has been lost. There has a been a lot of trial and error but the results are worth it. Photos via

How did they decide to settle on 3 designers for their new line?



RJT: I don’t think that was the original intention, but throughout the interview process that choice became clear.


Did you all know each other well before being enlisted to collaborate together on The Portland Collection?


NAC: Well Rachel and I go back since 6th grade. Mt. Tabor represent. But we also had been friends with John for a good little while before starting the project together. I think there was a certain kinship we had with John both aesthetically and personally.


RJT: We knew John as a fellow designer from the old Seaplane days. We also used to watch Project Runway at his house way back when it first started.


JDB: I respected what Nathaniel and Rachel were doing with Church & State and had always enjoyed hanging out with them. It has been great to be able to work with them and get to know them on a closer level.

John Blasioli at work: the designers are very hands-on, being involved in all phases of the design process from pattern making to sample sewing.


What was your education in the brand like? Were there a lot of things you didn't know or things about the history of the brand that surprised you?


NAC: Uh...I thought I knew, but I had know idea. I knew it from trips to their stores for fabric to use in our own line, or trips to the vintage store looking for a good score. Their stories and history, however, is kind of mind blowing. I wouldn’t know where to begin.


RJT: Like many people I imagine, my early interaction with the brand was searching for old blankets, sweaters and plaid shirts in vintage stores. Even today it strikes a chord when I come across the old navy and gold label.

Later, when we started Church & State we definitely looked to Pendleton as a fabric resource. It was like another fabric store in town except for the difference that the wool was woven in the Northwest from a historic local company.

I think the thing about Pendleton is it has such a varied and complex history it can never be completely nailed down. I am always learning something new. Throughout this process we have discovered that Pendleton supplied blankets for the 1932 Summer Olympics, had one of the first stores in Frontierland when Disneyland opened in 1955 and participated in the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959.


JDB: My education of Pendleton was maybe more from an East Coast perspective. I didn’t really know about the Native American element to the company until moving out to Portland. I knew Pendleton to be tailored Tartan blazers, long solid wool coats, and plaid button-down shirts. It has been quite fascinating getting to know Pendleton on such an intimate level. The company has such a storied history that very few companies, if any, can really compare with.

 Until 1990 Pendleton was an anchor store in Disneyland's Frontierland. 
Photo via

Rachel Turk cutting out patterns. The hard-working designers are already beginning development on their Spring 2014 line.

Tell us about the vaults--was that like Christmas getting to see the archives? Is there a lot of stuff there?

NAC: Personally I think the Pendleton archives could be like 100 times huger, but it was still like Christmas morning with a gang of presents under the tree. We start every collection off with an extensive visit to the archives. We are always finding new things we never saw before or seeing things again in a new light.

RJT: There are several racks of clothes which are relatively easy to go through. It is all of the grey archival boxes filled with old advertisements, line sheets, labels, photographs, you name it that take the most time to sift through. We still haven’t even seen anything yet. My favorites are the old fabric swatches and boxes of blankets.

JDB: The archives are an inspiring place to start each collection. There are blankets from the earliest years of the 20th century and garments from the 1920’s on. One of the most remarkable elements is how well the pieces have aged. Construction techniques back then were pretty thoughtful and the fabrics have worn so impressively. I am also pretty sure the Pendleton archives are the only place I have been where someone’s fingerprint unlocks the door.

A collection of Pendleton textiles: this is the starting point for the design process and the designers are becoming really pro at how they create new and fresh translations from archival fabrics. 2013 will see the first introduction of silk prints (I have seen samples and I wasn't able to share photos but trust me, they are incredible!)


How many prints did you design for your first collection?


NAC: We basically had two that we played out in a few different ways. One was the Harding Blanket motif, which was named for President Harding’s wife when Pendleton presented it to her as a gift on a trip to Oregon. It is one of Pendleton most iconic designs. It’s normally done very colorfully, so we thought it would be really interesting to strip it of its color and do it in just black and tan. We did it in it’s traditional size and weight, but also shrunk it down and put it in a lighter drapier fabric.

The other print we did was a Plaid, which we based off Pendleton’s most classic plaid named after the Beach Boys (who were originally know as the Pendletones). We really liked the idea of taking a super classic plaid but playing with its scale and color. So we rearranged its typical color format, then blew it up once for for shirts and dresses, and then blew it up even bigger for outerwear.

And how many for your Fall 2012 collection?


JDB: For Fall 2012, we were able to create the complete fabric story for The Portland Collection. We designed a total of 27 fabrics including the blankets and scarves. We wanted to expand the color palette for the second season as well as broaden the range of wool qualities we used, adding some lighter weight worsted wools. For the jacquard print inspiration, we reached further back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to what we call early square designs. Looms were more limited at that time and could only work in 90 degree angles. We liked the strong graphic element of this style and also thought it helped differentiate the designs from the style of jacquard prints that are currently being heavily used.

The Painted Hills print features prominently in the Fall collection being translated to everything from blankets to umbrellas. Photos via

Can you tell us about the women's jacket that was the launching point for your first collection?


RJT: The coat was one of the Toboggan coats Pendleton produced in the 1920’s. Outerwear was Pendleton’s second foray into WW after introducing wool robes in the early 1900’s. The full WW line was launched in 1949 after World War II.

There were several Toboggan’s in the archives with different fabrics, but the one we were all drawn to was the black and tan jacquard version because it was so striking. Typically Pendleton jacquards are so rich and full of color, the absence of color felt new to us. The original coat may even have been black and white but due to the years of wear the white might have turned tan.

The 1920's Pendleton tobaggan coat which was the jumping off point for the first collection. It's in pristine condition--hard to believe it's nearly a century old.

How much involvement does Pendleton have in the look of The Portland Collection--do you get a brief before setting out to work on a new season or have they set you loose?


JDB: For the most part, we have a fair amount of creative freedom within designing the styles for The Portland Collection. It is a very collaborative process throughout with many people weighing in so I wouldn’t say it is an unadulterated vision from our end but we often are the ones who make the last decision on design related elements.


I love the 7 step design process you wrote about on your site. Of these steps how do you divide and conquer? Do you all work on everything equally as you move through the process?


1. Concept - All

2. Create line plan - All

3. Develop fabrics and color story - All

4. Sketch designs - All

5. Edit - All

6. Formalize chosen designs into computer format - Nathaniel, Rachel, interns

7. Draft pattern - For the first year Nathaniel and John did most of the patternmaking by hand, for the F12 and F13 seasons, Pendleton made the patterns in house on the computer

8. Cut - All, but mostly interns

9. Sew - Nathaniel and John mostly, Pendleton sometimes handles the sewing of prototypes and we contract other styles out.

10. Fit - All

11. Adjust pattern and design - The three of us adjust the design and Pendleton handles the patterns changes

12. Repeat steps 7 thru 11 until complete





Through Pendleton you've had the chance to develop your own fabrics and work on knits, two things I think are new for you. What areas have been most fun for you--any new passions that you didn't know you had?

 

NAC: For me it was more like being able to fulfill a love you knew you had.

RJT: Fabrics and knits have definitely been the two newest things, along with accessory design. Working on the fabric is definitely my favorite. I am really drawn to color, print and texture.

JDB: Getting to design our own fabrics is definitely number one. It just really opens the possibilities of what you can create with a line. Knits have been an amazing learning experience. I have also loved getting more into bag design and am excited to keep exploring and developing that.

The Ram's Horn print takes on a totally different look when color, fabrication, and scale is altered. Photos via

Can you talk about the "heritage" market and how The Portland Collection fits in with that? Where do you think the movement is headed?


NAC: I think The Portland Collection definitely fits in, at least in part with the “heritage” market. I think, though, from the beginning we wanted to be more, or maybe not more, but different than the heritage brands that were/are out there and have become sort of ubiquitous. I love old stories, old craftsmanship, tried and true ideas, but I also love the idea of take those things and building on them. Being inspired by them but continuing to move them forward.

RJT: I think The Portland Collection is one of the only lines doing WW heritage since most are MW based. I don’t think there are as many rules for WW heritage...I like that. We try to give it a more contemporary feel but use heritage fabrics designed under the Pendleton name.

JDB: I think the rise of the “heritage” market is a great thing and a welcome response to a lot of the disposable fashion out there today. I think of it as return to quality, story, detail, a strong attention to where and how things are made . I think within the “heritage” movement there is a strong desire to recreate or replicate what once was, down to the tiniest offset button. I think with The Portland Collection, as Nathaniel and Rachel have stated, we are striving to take that ethos and push it ahead, to create something new.

Is the line wholly manufactured in the US?


RJT: The woven clothing and knit sweaters are all produced in the U.S. The wool for the F12 season is all manufactured in the Northwest; the plaids and solids are produced at the mill in Washougal, WA and the Native American jacquards are woven in Pendleton, OR. The accessories are the only category that is not made in the U.S., that is something we are trying to work on. For F13 we worked on one bag that will be made in the States, in fact it will actually be made in Portland.

An inspiring view of the SE industrial area and downtown Portland can be seen from Nathaniel and Rachel's studio.

What are your long-term plans for the brand?


JDB: We have just completed our Fall 2013 collection, which we feel really good about. It feels like our strongest line yet. In October we will begin working on Spring 2014 which will be our first Spring season for The Portland Collection.

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Shop The Portland Collection

Fellow Portlanders you can shop the collection in person at Tilde, Blake, Shop Adorn, and Frances May. For the rest of you I have culled a selection of my favorite styles from online retailers...

1 comments:

Ulysses :

Such a great article. It's inspiring to see such great local designers doing such innovative work for this historic brand. Thanks for sharing!

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